Collection Highlight: The Works of James Van Der Zee

Portrait of Siblings. c. late 1930s. James VanDerZee (American, 1886-1983). Gelatin silver print, 13.90 X 8.70 cm. The Jane B. Tripp Charitable Lead Annuity Trust.

James Van Der Zee (1886-1983) did not gain recognition from the art world until age 82 when, in 1969, his photographs were included in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s exhibition Harlem On My Mind. By that point, Van Der Zee had been documenting African American life for over 60 years. His lack of prior recognition was due both to his race and his choice of artistic medium.

Raised in one of 5 black families in Lennox, Massachusetts, by parents who had been servants for retired President Ulysses S. Grant, Van Der Zee became an avid amateur photographer at age 14. In 1906 he moved to Harlem, where he taught piano and violin and co-founded an orchestra. Within a few years, Van Der Zee found that a better living could be made in photography than music.

As a commercial portrait photographer, Van Der Zee’s job was to create images of people as they wished to be remembered. Most of his clients were upper and middle class blacks; they arrived dressed in their Sunday best. When their own clothing didn’t match their social and economic aspirations, Van Der Zee loaned them luxurious accessories such as fur coats and jewelry. He went on location in Harlem to shoot church groups, clubs, sports teams, weddings, and funerals. Van Der Zee was also the “go-to” photographer for African American celebrities, whether visitors or Harlem natives, including the Reverend Adam Clayton Powell Sr., Bill “Bojangles” Robinson and Marcus Garvey.

The Cleveland Museum of Art owns 34 vintage works by Van Der Zee. The first to be acquired, purchased in 1975, is a marvelous group portrait shot in 1927. It was only the 89th photograph to enter the collection. The CMA, like most museums at that time, did not actively collect photography because the medium’s status as art was suspect.

Marcus Garvey (right) with George O. Marke (left) and Prince Kojo Tovalu-Houenou. 1924. James VanDerZee (American, 1886-1983). Medium: gelatin silver print. 17.00 X 21.50 cm. The Jane B. Tripp Charitable Lead Annuity Trust.

Van Der Zee shows us four self-confident, elegantly attired members (possibly the officers) of a women’s club in a richly decorated parlor or library. Then and now, black women’s clubs were important forces for social change and educational and economic progress. Fittingly, the Cleveland chapter of The Links, a national African American women’s service organization, donated funds for the photograph’s purchase.

The remaining 33 photographs were acquired as a group in 1999, by which time museums had accepted photography as a full-fledged art form. Two scenes predate Van Der Zee’s professional career: a 1909 scene of Father Coming Down Apple Tree to Hen House and a charming portrait of a female student at the Whittier School, which prepared students to attend the Hampton Institute. The remaining portraits, which include both black and white sitters, provide glimpses of life in New York during the Jazz Age, Great Depression and World War II.

-Barbara Tannenbaum, Curator of Photography


Blog Archive